Sophomore center Alex Kirk returned from an injury induced year off to tally a team-high in scoring and and game-high in rebounding as the New Mexico Lobos survived a savage second half to defeat Division II New Mexico Highlands 92-70 before an announced crowd of 13,055 at The Pit in their final exhibition game of the season.
Kirk, who sat out the 2011-12 after back surgery, finished with 16 points and eight rebounds and shot a perfect 8 of 8 from the free throw line to lead the team coming off the bench.
"It was great for Alex to get to moving around again," said head coach Steve Alford. "He hadn't played a game in nearly 600 days. That's not easy. That why I wish we had him for both exhibition games, but I was really pleased with what we saw out of him today."
The Lobos shot a smoking 23 of 26 from the free throw line in the first half, only to cool off to 12 of 22 in the second half as the Cowboys resorted to fouling to keep turn the fluid pace of the first half into stagger in the second half. NMHU finished with 33 personal fouls for the game and three players fouling out.
"All in all, I was pretty pleased," said head coach Steve Alford. "We didn't make the foul shot in the second half so when you have that many fouls and you're not making foul shots, it makes for a really sloppy half. So that's where the sloppiness came in. I thought we took care of the ball pretty well, but it was a wild game"
New Mexico (2-0 exhibition) finished with six players in double figures as forwards Cameron Bairstow and Chad Adams added 14 points and 7 rebounds and 11 points and 4 rebounds respectively and Kendall Williams added 12 points and 6 rebounds, Tony Snell added 11 points and 5 rebounds and Hugh Greenwood tallied 10 points and 6 rebounds. The Lobos out rebounded NMHU 55 to 36, puling in 37 defensive rebounds off long misses from the Cowboys, who pushed up 37 3-point shots, hitting just 12 for a 32% performance.
"That (rebounding) is an emphasis (for our guards,)" said Greenwood. "To have two bigs in, that has been an emphasis for us since day one. We need to rebound and I think everyone is buying in."
UNM opened the game on an 16-5 run but Highlands cut the lead to 22-17 on 3-pointer by Lavell McDaded with 9:54 left in the 1st half. But the Lobos responded UNM with a 26-3 run over the next six minutes to secure a 48-20 lead. New Mexico led 58-32 at the half.
Highlands came out determined to disrupt the flow of the game in the second half, piling on the fouls on the defensive end while continuing to pepper away from long range on the offensive end. The tactic helped them cut the Lobos' lead by 7 points as NMHU closed to 65-44 at the 13:17 mark on a trey by Ray Riley. The Cowboys cut the lead all the way down to 17 at 82-65 with just over five minutes left but got no closer.
"We lost our concentration (in the second half)," said Greenwood. "The things at the foul line and there was some turnovers. We couldn’t run. We were capitalizing that in the first half and getting stops. That’s what we do best.
"They were scoring and it was stopping our transition," said Greenwood. "That was the main issue. We couldn’t go out and run like we normally do in the first half. We put together a great first half. We just have to do that for 40 minutes."
Guard Stuart Sullivan score a game-high 19 points on 7 of 13 shooting while Mannie Cass and Lavell McDade added 10 points each for Highlands. The Cowboys shot just 7 free throws on the night, making 4 and were outscored 44-20 in the paint and 16-6 on second chance points.
New Mexico now begins preparing for a midnight game against Davidson as part of ESPN’s 24 Hours of Hoops next Monday night. Tip off at The Pit is 11:59 am.